Find out the secret sauce of Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook and Foursquare

One of the questions which come to mind while reading about the stupendous success of Instagram is “How a company which has only 12 employees built a product which hooked up 30+million users in a short span of time?” What is the secret sauce which makes Instagram drive its 30+ million users to use the product frequently?

During my search, I discovered the concept of ‘Desire Engine‘ by Nir Eyal which takes a fundamental approach to explain success of consumer products by linking it to consumers’ psyche. Nir has managed to create a fantastic framework to explain habit formation which can be used to create products or validate product features towards habit formation amongst its consumers. Once you start seeing popular products through this lens, you can appreciate why Instagram was successful despite many clones in the market.

To get an understanding of ‘Desire Engine’ I recommend viewing the two videos on Nir’s blog “FIRST VIDEO OF MY “BEHAVIOR BY DESIGN” TALK: CREATING ADDICTIVE PRODUCTS“. The rest of this article makes full sense only after watching these videos

Desire Engine a summary

In short, Nir’s framework shows an approach used by consumer web companies like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest etc to manufacture ‘Desire’ in consumers. Yes you heard that right ‘manufacture a desire’ in you to get addicted to using the product. To achieve this, these products attach themselves to frequently occurring internal emotions like loneliness, boredom, willingness to show-off skills etc. Whenever internal emotions like loneliness or boredom occurs, the consumer would feel the urge to login and check Facebook, Pinterest etc depending on the emotion. By repeating this many times, you simply get hooked to these products so much that you would use them even when internal emotion is not triggered. Hence you get addicted to them. Though I must admit I found the term addicted a bit too harsh initially, but think about what you feel if you have not checked your Facebook account for the whole day and you are suddenly reminded of it. Don’t we all feel a slight pain which magically goes away once you are done with browsing your Facebook friend stream, so I begin to accept it is a form of addiction.

To really understand how the ‘Desire engine’ can be used to build our next version of ShoutOut product, we thought we should first learn the fundamentals by applying the framework to understand how it is being used by successful products companies. Here goes the analysis for 4 products. Note that you should watch the 2 videos before you can appreciate analysis completely.

Instagram: The success of Instagram can be attributed to the fact that they were able to create this desire of  showing off  ‘photography’ skills in the users of the app and then slowly converting this desire into a habit by giving him variable rewards.  Instagram has not only used the desire engine to hook users, they have also excelled in the user action department by making the lower resolution pictures taken from a mobile phone look great and help the user quickly upload pictures to facebook or twitter. Here is the desire engine summary for most popularly used features on Instagram.

Pinterest: The phenomenal interest in Pinterest is the result of the service being able to form a desire and habit out of sharing interests with others.  Its meteoric rise can be partly attributed to the easy to consume and create content on Pinterest. Humans are wired to consume visual information more easily than textual information like Twitter hence Pinterest ‘s user base is raising faster than Twitter did at the same stage of its evolution. Pinterest has simplified the act of showing off your interests like no other product has done. Here is the desire engine summary for most popularly used features on Pinterest.

Foursquare: The analysis of Foursquare using the desire engine frame work is interesting because the App has recently repositioned itself. From being a check-in service, the App now aspires to be a recommendation engine for experiences near you. In the redesign, it has retained most parts of the check-in service while adding newer functionality in the explore tab. Due to this, the product is aiming to target 2 different internal emotions, one which is about showing-off where you are and what your doing. The other emotion is the hunger of  discovering new experiences around you. Thus in effect, Foursquare has two different desire engines implemented  into the same product. Here is the desire engine summary for most popularly used features on FourSquare.

Facebook: The analysis of Facebook using the desire engine framework is tricky one as  Facebook associates itself to several internal triggers like loneliness, showing-off, venting anger etc. To keep the analysis simple, i have tried to combine several desire engines into one for Facebook and kept only a few internal triggers and usecases of the service . The massive popularity and high usage time on Facebook can be partly attributed to the fact that many internal triggers are satisfied by Facebook thus making it easier to form a habit of checking Facebook multiple times a day.

Ability to do things quickly

All through this analysis, well again like Nir says, i noticed another common thread in all these successful products. They make the user action with as little friction as possible thus making the consumer do only what is necessary in the most effective manner. This helps in making the consumer to go through the desire engine faster thus aiding in quicker habit formation.

  •  Instagram: The product makes it really easy to take pictures from mobile phone and upload them to social networks like Facebook quickly. The UI is devoid of too many options with only few filters to add effects to photos. The uploading of pictures  is so fast that the Facebook’s app seems like a tortoise racing with a bullet train in comparison with Instagram. (with Indian upload speeds) 🙂
  • Pinterest: The product makes it very easy to consume and create content that we are left wondering why someone else had not thought of this easy way to share ones interests.
  • Foursquare : The app is designed to perform the task of check-in and leaving a tip for any local business a breeze.
  • Facebook :  The friends stream is the most intuitive piece of design ever as it solves the complex problem of keeping up with friends into a simple UI of flowing updates from your friends. The algorithm does a wonderful job to bringing the most relevant content up your stream thus ensuring that you get updated about friends quickly.

So the combination of using the desire engine to build a product/service and making the experience of the user as frictionless as possible makes products like Instagram, Pinterest, FourSquare and Facebook so popular. I hope this article is an eye opener to many of you to understand that you may have got addicted to one of these services already 🙂

We think that by using ‘Desire Engine’, we can effectively fast-track habits and manufacture desire in consumers to ShoutOut their experiences as it happens.

Note: ShoutOut aims at making it easy for consumers to say their experiences about products or local places as it happens. then and there.

What are your thoughts? Leave your comments below.


This page has 6,798 views